Film Ignites the Wrath of Hindu Fundamentalists

Elizabeth Bumiller in the New York Times:

03water_span_1India has made headlines as an emerging superpower, a land of high-tech multimillionaires and a vast new market for American goods. But there is another India too, and it is not just the one of villages and ox carts that has always been best known in the West.

This is the disturbing India of the Hindu widow, a woman traditionally shunned as bad luck and forced to live in destitution on the edge of society. Her husband’s death is considered her fault, and she has to shave her head, shun hot food and sweets and never remarry. In the pre-independence India of the 1930’s, the tradition applied even to child brides of 5 or 6 who had been betrothed for the future by their families but had never laid eyes on their husbands.

Into this milieu now comes the director Deepa Mehta with “Water,” a lush new film that opened on Friday, about Chuyia, an 8-year-old widow in the India of 1938. She has barely met her husband but is banished by her parents to a decrepit widows’ house on the edge of the Ganges. Chuyia is left there sobbing, in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film, but she insists her parents will soon return for her.

More here.

Two women — two centuries apart — discover the limits of their good intentions.

From The Washington Post:Alvarez_1

SAVING THE WORLD: A Novel by Julia Alvarez. Julia Alvarez isn’t afraid to ask hard questions. Saving the World , as the title suggests, confronts one that’s troubled every great religion: how to deal with social inequity. How can a person of sensitivity and conscience justify being one of “the lucky ones,” as Alvarez puts it, when so many people elsewhere in the world haven’t got the means to live, let alone “to be a human being”? Who can be saved, and how?

Alma Rodriguez Huebner, the heroine of this novel, is a writer without a story. Drowning in midlife depression, she’s years behind on a book she’s unable to write, and she’s struggling to meet the demands of increasingly dependent but distant parents. The bonds of friendship and marriage seem more tenuous to her by the day. Readers’ own politics will probably determine whether Alma sounds like a troubled person of principle or a whiny bore; she seems to feel that guilt is a sine qua non of American citizenship, but she’s articulate about it. She realizes how much of her persona has been formed by meeting or rejecting others’ expectations. But self-knowledge is not enough to make life meaningful for her.

More here.

Americans far sicker than English

From Nature:Pie_1

Middle-aged Americans are in much worse health than their English counterparts, suggests a trans-Atlantic comparison, and scientists are at a loss to explain why. The new study, which compared the health of white, 55 to 64-year-olds in the two countries, found that diabetes is twice as common in the United States compared with England, cancer 70% more prevalent and heart disease more than 50% more widespread. People in the healthiest, high-income and education bracket in the United States have comparable rates of heart disease and diabetes as those in the sickest, low-income group in England, the study shows.

The differences were so great that at first “it seemed implausible”, says James Smith of the RAND corporation in Santa Monica, California, and senior author of the Journal of the American Medical Association study. “We did not expect to find this.” The explanation doesn’t seem to be down to the facts that Americans are fatter or that the British drink more alcohol, the researchers say. When they ran their health data through a model to make both groups have equivalent levels of obesity, smoking and drinking, the health differences only lessened slightly. Instead, the difference could stem from poor childhood health or adult stress, they say. And that could serve as a caution to other countries that are increasingly adopting the eating and lifestyle patterns of the United States. “It may be a warning signal,” Smith says.

More here.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

The Novel and National Identity

In the Guardian, Terry Eagleton reviews Patrick Parrinder’s Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day.

In the 18th century, as Nation and Novel shows, the rise of the novel is bound up with the forging of a new kind of Protestant national identity, as Britain consolidates its commercial and imperial power after the revolutionary upheavals of the civil war era and the Restoration. It’s no accident that Defoe writes a scabrous poem entitled “The True-Born Englishman”, as well as producing what Parrinder sees as a study in national character in the figure of the robustly individualist Robinson Crusoe. Henry Fielding wrote the original lyrics for “The Roast Beef of Old England”, while Samuel Richardson’s novels can be read among other things as Whiggish political allegories.

It took an outsider, Sir Walter Scott, to launch some of the most searching reflections on nationhood and national character. The art of Dickens, an author Parrinder reads as both an instinctive republican and a Little Englander, was praised by George Gissing as embodying the spirit of the English race. Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which portrays an English nation at the mercy of (probably Jewish) foreign crooks and speculators, is one instance of that spirit at its most sourly xenophobic.

As the Victorian age passed into a world of mass migrations, new nation-states and the collapse of empires, national identity became an increasingly self-conscious literary topic. As Parrinder points out, the very idea of national identity, as opposed to national character, reflects a certain anxiety. National character, supposedly, is an objective set of features (in the case of the English, common sense, moderation, idiosyncrasy, philistinism, emotional reserve and so on), while identity is usually what you are still in search of. “What are we?” is a less unsettling question for a nation to ask itself than “Who are we?”

Interdisciplines Archive of Papers on Mirror Neurons

3QD readers may have noticed that some of us have a fixation on mirror neurons. Here is an archive of papers and discussions on mirror neurons moderated by Gloria Origgi and Dan Sperber.

The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of macaques and their implications for human brain evolution is one of the most important findings of neuroscience in the last decade. Mirror neurons are active when the monkeys perform certain tasks, but they also fire when the monkeys watch someone else perform the same specific task. There is evidence that a similar observation/action matching system exists in humans. The mirror system is sometimes considered to represent a primitive version, or possibly a precursor in phylogeny, of a simulation heuristic that might underlie mindreading.

Today, mirror neurons play a major explanatory role in the understanding of a number of human features, from imitation to empathy, mindreading and language learning. It has also been claimed that damages in these cerebral structures can be responsible for mental deficits such as autism. The virtual workshop will address the theoretical implications of the discovery of mirror neurons. The discussion will try to set the explanatory scope of the phenomenon, and evaluate to what extent it can provide a new empirical ground for a variety of human mental abilities.

Jenkins on the Decade of Nightmares

From the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, a talk by Philip Jenkins, author of Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America.

[S]o much of what I am saying is a reasonably familiar story, the idea of the rise of a Religious Right. But I would like to look at this in a slightly different way— I think a slightly unusual way.

In 1979 or 1980, anyone looking at the landscape of American politics could not fail to see the role of religion as a conservative force; not just religion, but traditional, orthodox religion. I would also suggest to you that exactly the same is true on a global scale. We might say this happens in the United States due to particularly American conditions. But the same American conditions do not cause similar changes—mutatis mutandis—in other societies and other religions.

Let’s just take the year 1977 as a focus.What happens in the year 1977? Look around the world. In Israel, for example, we have the Likud government, with an unprecedented mobilization of orthodox and traditional-minded Jews. In India, we have the defeat of the Congress Party by the Janata Party, which is the first successful mobilization of traditionally minded orthodox Hindus, and a party which would later become the BJP, the fundamentalist party there.

Above all, the classic example of Islam. In 1975, organized political Islam in most of the Arab world or the Islamic world is not a force. By 1979, it is very definitely a force. There is a dramatic change in just that four-year period.

What has happened? In 1979, for example, look at what is happening in the Muslim world: In February, you have the success of the Iranian Revolution, which sends reverberations around the Islamic world. You have the unsuccessful coup attempt by fundamentalists in Mecca—a remarkable event, which the Saudis try to deal with by making the devil’s bargain, by basically telling the fundamentalists that there’s a whole world out there just anxious to receive their message, and, “We’ll be very happy to give you the money. Just go and do it somewhere else.”

The science of happiness

From BBC News:Happy_2

Happiness researchers have been monitoring people’s life satisfaction for decades. Yet despite all the massive increase in our wealth in the last 50 years our levels of happiness have not increased. “Standard of living has increased dramatically and happiness has increased not at all, and in some cases has diminished slightly,” said Professor Daniel Kahneman of the University of Princeton. “There is a lot of evidence that being richer… isn’t making us happier”

The research suggests that richer countries do tend to be happier than poor ones, but once you have a home, food and clothes, then extra money does not seem to make people much happier. It seems that that level is after average incomes in a country top about £10,000 a year. Scientists think they know the reason why we do not feel happier despite all the extra money and material things we can buy. First, it is thought we adapt to pleasure. We go for things which give us short bursts of pleasure whether it is a chocolate bar or buying a new car. Second, its thought that we tend to see our life as judged against other people. We compare our lot against others. Richer people do get happier when they compare themselves against poorer people, but poorer people are less happy if they compare up. The good news is that we can choose how much and who we compare ourselves with and about what, and researchers suggest we adapt less quickly to more meaningful things such as friendship and life goals.

More here.

Evolution Gets Hot and Steamy

From Science:Evo

With crushing heat and humidity, you’d think life would move sluggishly in tropical rainforests. But according to a new study, at least one thing proceeds more like the hare than the tortoise: molecular evolution. Faster evolution in the tropics than more temperate zones could help explain why rainforests are such hotbeds of diversity and have implications for how scientists calculate when one species diverged from another.

Scientists have uncovered hints that evolution progresses faster in regions closer to the equator than in those closer to the poles. But this consensus was never backed up with a solid explanation. “Nobody’s tested it properly,” says evolutionary ecologist Len Gillman of the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. One theory is that the tropics’ smaller population sizes make it easier for random genetic changes to accumulate and increase the genetic differences between populations. Another is that the faster metabolism of tropical species, spurred by hotter temperatures and more sunlight, offers more opportunities for cell division to go awry. This could lead to potentially useful DNA mutations.

More here.

Monday, May 1, 2006

Dispatches: The Persistence of the Hamburger

Much of the work of a new restaurant resides in coming up with new inflections of old dishes, or familiarizing anchors for new dishes, in order to produce the right combination of novelty and intelligibility.  Depending on its target clientele, a restaurant chooses what to serve within a determinate field: a restaurant serving people who consider themselves Modern and International can serve foams in the confidence that they will be understood as a nod to Spain’s Ferran Adria.  A East Village diner can serve vegan hot dogs just as confidently.  The price of a dish itself is a reassurance of various things: this is expensive enough that I can trust it, this is cheap enough that I am not being ripped off like an Upper East Sider, the reasonable price of their grass-fed ribs demonstrates such an admirable commitment to the neighborhood!, etc.  More to the point, in New York, with its lack of a generally elaborated culinary canon, an established item must usually be reinvented in some way.  Our foie gras comes with pineapple jelly; ours with Venezuelan chocolate. 

Conversely, new concoctions must be tied to the gastronomic memory of diners.  Shrimp with grits and pork belly gets a poached egg on top, giving the dish a reassuring breakfast-for-dinner feel.  In lamb roasted with Armagnac and Thai chilies, the trusty liquor, with its aroma of French authenticity, balances the – whoa! – Thai chilies, the name of which is more the point than the actual flavor – bourgeois New Yorkers have timid, oversweet palates.  Wild mint lemonade: the drink is a short tone poem of buzzwords, foraging-tasty-comfortable.  Hopeless cases are the dishes that achieved a vogue long ago, but not long enough that they are ready to be resurrected.  Just as scenesters exhume styles from about twenty years ago (in the nineties, platforms and bells, nowadays, skinny ties and prom dresses), so food items are ready for reclamation only after proper aging.  The fried chicken and collards that James Beard brought back as part of his interest in American regional foodways are good again; pasta primavera and chicken florentine, no sir.  Go ahead and ask for tiramisu somewhere.  (Interestingly, there does seem to be a relation between a food’s perceived ‘ethnicity’ and its likelihood of return; just as people forget the Tagores and remember the Yeats’, they seem to forget the vindaloos and remember the quenelles of pike.)

What emerges when one surveys New York’s food culture is a sense that certain dishes have ethnographic weight, or thickness, while others are believed to be inorganic impositions.  A New York Times (the absolute gold standard for food ideology) article about fried chicken depends on the M&G Diner up on 125th Street as the case for fried chicken’s indigenous connection to New York’s ‘soul.’  (That said, I love M&G’s fried chicken on Wonderbread very, very much.)  The vogues for gumbo, or ramps, however, will be harder to sustain that way.  At the top end, the foods that are granted permanent menu residence are not American regional at all: they are French.  The idea is of a taxonomized, fully articulated cuisine existing elsewhere, that must be strived for but can never be reached.  The scenes in Haneke’s Caché in which the ubër-bourgeois couple eats plain spaghetti or cheese and salami, however, are much more accurate as an index of modern Paris.  Without one partner living at home, not a lot of people are eating sauces gribiches or gigot d’agneau a la maison over there either.  There’s no going home again to your Provençal maman; French cuisine is curated and articulated in restaurants too.

New Yorkers stick to French, however, as part of a powerful cultural formation in which the worship of celebrity chefs often overwhelms all else.  Ask a New York food snob where their most memorable meals were, and you’ll hear the names Keller and Vongerichten and Boulud much more than you’ll hear ‘at a roadside roti shack in Flatbush,’ or ‘a bodega on Avenue A,’ or the obscurities you might expect from a modern-day A. J. Liebling with more self-respect than desire to genuflect.  There’s all too much faith in the real, actual superiority of these figures, despite the fact that you can go to, say, Babbo, and have the famous beef cheeks and find them oversauced and undersalted, because Mario’s in Sardinia or Las Vegas.  The use of taste as a form of distinction becomes very clear when you consider the reversal of fortunes of various meats over the last thirty years.  Where the tenderness and fatty evenness of beef tenderloin formerly held sway, the stringy, braise-requiring toughness of ‘peasant’ cuts like shanks and cheeks does today.  Those filet mignon and lobster tail eaters are now hopelessly déclassé, whereas the lover of sweetbreads or hanger steak announces herself as gastronomically up to date.

One food, however, that hasn’t seemed to need a resurrection at all, and that I believe stands in the middle of many of these opposing trends: the hamburger.  Unlike, say, penne alla arrabiata, a burger can be dressed up and down, served at the greasiest of spoons or to the most silvery palates.  Yeah, I know, Daniel makes one out of short ribs stuffed with foie gras for four thousand dollars.  I also know that you can get a perfectly passable one with decent fries for six bucks at Reservoir, or a million other places.  There are the neo-burger chains like Blue 9, or Better Burger, for your lover of Whole Foods-style marketing, just as fifteen years ago Paul’s on Second Avenue and the English muffin burger at Florent were the newest wave.  There are your supercool places, like Pop Burger and Burger Joint, the knowingly humble place hidden in the upscale Parker Meridien hotel.  There are the classics, Corner Bistro and Old Town and Union Square Café and Peter Luger, where the burger is made from porterhouse off-cuts and tastes like aged beef, which is weird.  Savoy has a grass-fed burger with mediocre house-made ketchup – sometimes the industrial choice is best.  There are the Williamsburg three, Diner and Relish and Dumont, which are all excellent – though Dumont’s burgers are slipping since they introduced their spinoff, Dumont Burger.  When I’m over at my friend Tricia’s, I often make late-night visits to White Castle – got a problem with that?  And there are thousands of other hamburgers in the city, at lunch counters (are any eating establishments, in New New York, as endangered and as beautiful as lunch counters?) and temples of cuisine and everything in between.

A hamburger is almost always the best value on a menu, calorie-wise and fillingness-wise, which makes no sense in pure economic terms.  With the high price of beef today, the ingredients in a half-pound, house-ground cheeseburger are far more expensive than a few ounces of penne, some tomatoes and a garlic clove.  Yet the pasta dish is always more, for solely sociological reasons.  People expect a burger to be affordable (unless the principle is being knowingly contravened, a la Café Boulud), and the very fact that a burger is a sandwich makes a category distinction that classes it with working lunches and food you eat with your hands.  Hamburgers reverse the very civilizing process of Western society, away from forks and the other distancing implements with which the physical body has been repressed.  (I refer here to Norbert Elias on how and where Europeans used to eat, blow their nose, spit, and vomit.)  The bun, the American addition to the German Hamburg-er, returns us to the prehistory of the plate, when food was served on bread that one tore chunks off of at will.  Accounts of burger eating so often focus on the necessity that a good burger’s juices drip down chin and fingers: part of the inner meaning of the burger is its revocation of the European taboo against soiling one’s hands with food.  In this to eat hamburgers is to indulge in a populist desire to part company with gastronomy altogether, with the notion of an elaborated cuisine.  And for this reason the hamburger is the American food that doesn’t wax and wane, that New Yorkers can have anywhere and everywhere, and that’s always a good deal.  I eat a lot of them.

See All Dispatches.

Monday Musing: What Wikipedia Showed Me About My Family, Community, and Consensus

Like a large number of people, I read and enjoy wikipedia. For many subjects on which I need to quickly get a primer, it’s good enough, at least for my purposes. I also just read it to see the ways the articles on some topics expand (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but mostly to see how some issues cease to be disputed over time and congeal (the entries on Noam Chomsky are a case in point), and to witness the institutionalization of what was initially envisioned to be an open and rather boundless form (in fact there’s a page on its policies and guidelines with a link to a page on how to propose policies). For someone coming out of political science, it’s intriguing.

To understand why, just look at wikipedia’s “Official Policy” page.

Our policies keep changing, and their interpretation as well. Hence it is common on Wikipedia for policy itself to be debated on talk pages, on Wikipedia: namespace pages, on the mailing lists, on Meta Wikimedia, and on IRC chat. Everyone is welcome to participate.

While we try to respect consensus, Wikipedia is not a democracy, and its governance can be inconsistent. Hence there is disagreement between those who believe rules should be explicitly stated and those who feel that written rules are inherently inadequate to cover every possible variation of problematic or disruptive behavior.

In either case, a user who acts against the spirit of our written policies may be reprimanded, even if no rule has technically been violated. Those who edit in good faith, show civility, seek consensus, and work towards the goal of creating a great encyclopedia should find a welcoming environment.

It’s own self-description points to the complicated process, the uncertainties, and tenuousness of forming rules to making desirable outcomes something other than completely random. Outside of the realm of formal theory, how institutions create outcomes, especially how they interact with environmental factors, cultural elements, psychology is, well, one of the grand sets of questions that constitute much of the social sciences. All the more complicating for wikipedia is that fifth key rule or “pillar” is that “wikipedia doesn’t have firm rules”.

Two of these rules or guidelines have worked to create an odd effect. The first is a “neutral point of view”, by which wikipedia (which reminds us that it is not a democracy) means a point of view “that at is neither sympathetic nor in opposition to its subject. Debates are described, represented, and characterized, but not engaged in.” The second is “consensus”. The policy page on “consensus” is short. It largely discusses what “consensus” is not.

“Consensus” is, of course, a tricky concept when flushed out. To take a small aspect, people in agreement need not have the same reasons or reasons of equal force. Some may agree that democracy is a good thing because anything else would require too much time and effort in selecting the smartest, most benevolent dictator, etc., and another may believe that democracy is a good thing because it represents a polity truly expressing a collective and autonomously formed judgment. Sometimes, it means not just agreeing on positions, but also on reasons and the steps between the two. In wikipedia’s case, it seems to consist of reducing debate to “x said”-“y said” pairs and an enervation of issues that are points of deep disagreement.

One interesting consequence has been that the discussion pages, free of the “neutral point of view” and “consensus” requirements, have become sites of contest, often for “cites of contest”. Perhaps more interestingly, they unintentionally demonstrate what can emerge in an open discussion without the neutrality and consensus constraints.

180pxnasrani_menorahjpgI was struck by this possibility a few weeks ago when I was looking up Syrian Orthodox Christians, trying to unearth some information on the relationship between two separate (sub?)denominations of the church. The reason is not particularly relevant and had more to do with curiosity about different parts of my family and the doctrinal and political divides among some of them. (We span Oriental Orthodox-reformed, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic sects and it gets confusing who believes what.)

While looking up the various entries on the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, I came across a link to an entry on Knanayas. Knanayas are a set of families, an enthic (or is it sub-ethnic?) community within the various Syriac Nasrani sects in South India, and to which I also belong.

The entry itself was interesting, at least to me.

Knanaya Christians are descendants of 72 Judeo-Christian families who migrated from Edessa (or Urfa), the first city state that embraced Christianity, to the Malabar coast in AD 345, under the leadership of a prominent merchant prince Knai Thomman (in English, Thomas of Cana). They consisted of 400 people men, women and children, from various Syriac-Jewish clans…Before the arrival of the Knanaya people, the early Nasrani people in the Malabar coast included some local converts and largely converted Jewish people who had settled in Kerala during the Babylonian exile and after…The Hebrew term Knanaya or K’nanaim, also known as Kanai or Qnana’im, (for singular Kanna’im or Q’nai) means “Jealous ones for god”. The K’nanaim people are the biblical Jews referred to as Zealots (overly jealous and with zeal), who came from the southern province of Israel. They were deeply against the Roman rule of Israel and fought against the Romans for the soverignity of the Jews. During their struggle the K’nanaim people become followers of the Jewish sect led by ‘Yeshua Nasrani’ (Jesus the Nazarene).

Some of history I’d known; other parts such as being allegedly descendants of the Qnana’im, I did not. Searching through the pages on the topics, what struck me most was nothing on the entry pages, but rather a single comment on the discussion pages.180pxkottayam_valia_palli02 It read:

I object to the Bias of this page. We Knanaya are not all Christians, only the Nasrani among us are Christians. Can you please tone down the overtly Christian propaganda on this page and focus more on us as an ethnic group. Thankyou. [sic]

With that line, images of the my family’s community shifted. It also revealed something about the value of disagreement, and not forcing consensus.

Ram, who writes for 3QD, explored multiculturalism, cultural rights, and group conflict in his dissertation. He is fairly critical of the concept and much of the surrounding politics, as I am. Specifically, he doesn’t believe that there are any compelling reasons for using public policy and public effort to preserve a culture, even a minority culture under stress. For a host of reasons, some compelling, Ram believes that minority cultures can reasonably ask for assistance for adjustment, but cannot reasonably ask the rest to preserve their way of life. One which he offers, one with which I agree, is that a community is often (perhaps eternally) riddled with conflicts about the identity, practices and makeup of the community itself. These conflicts often reflect distributions of power and resistance, internal majorities and minorities, and movements for reform and reactions in defense of privilege. Any move by public power to maintain a community is to take a side, often on the side of the majority. (Now, the majority may be right, but it certainly isn’t the role of public power to decide.)

But the multicultural sentiment is not driven by a desire to side with established practices within a community at the expense of dissidents and minorities. Rather, it’s driven by a false idea that there’s more consensus that there is within the group. The image is furthered by the fact that official spokesmen, usually religious figures, are seen as the authoritative figures for all community issues and not merely over religious rites, and by the fact that minorities such as gays and lesbians are labeled as shaped or corrupted by the “outside”. Forced consensus in other areas, I suspect, suffers from similar problems.

When articles on wikipedia were disputed more frequently, the discussion pages were, if anything, more filled with debate. Disputes have not been displaced onto discussions pages; and if they’ve become more interesting, it is only relatively so. Since the 1970s, ever since political philosophy, political theory and the social sciences developed an interest in ideal speech situations, veils of ignorance, and deliberation, there’s been a fetish made of consensus. Certainly, talking to each other is generally better than beating up each other, but the idea of driving towards agreement may be doing a disservice to politics itself. It was for that reason I was quite pleased by the non-Christian Knanya charging everyone else with bias.

Happy Monday and Happy May Day.

Old Bev: Global Warning

A17_h_148_22725_1Issues 1-3 of n+1 feature a section titled “The Intellectual Situation” which “usually scrutinizes the products of our culture and the problems of everyday life.”  (A typical scrutiny, from Issue 2: “A reading is like a bedside visit. The audience extends a giant moist hand and strokes the poor reader’s hair.”) But in Issue 4, out today, the magazine’s editors, worried “that our culture and everyday life may not exist in their current form much longer,” take a break from topics like dating and McSweeney’s and devote the section to “An Interruption”: Chad Harbach’s summary of global warming. It’s a startling essay because, unlike writings on the same subject by researchers, politicians, economists, and scientists, Harbach claims absolutely no personal authority and offers little analysis of the particulars of the situation.  Instead, he’s scared, and thinks you should be too.  And you shouldn’t be scared just of the hurricanes, but of the nice days as well:

Our way of life that used to seem so durable takes on a sad, valedictory aspect, the way life does for any 19th-century protagonist on his way to a duel that began as a petty misunderstanding.  The sunrise looks like fire, the flowers bloom, the morning air dances against his cheeks.  It’s so incongruous, so unfair!  He’s healthy, he’s young, he’s alive – but he’s passing from the world.  And so are we, healthy and alive – but our world is passing from us. 

Harbach longs for the days before he knew what carbon dioxide and methane do to our climate; he doesn’t seem to resent the “way of life that used to seem so durable” as much as he does the fact that he knows it is no longer durable, and is forced to watch it progress.  It’s the coupling of access to knowledge and lack of agency that feeds Harbach’s nightmare.  And the nightmare is compelling because it doesn’t come from a journalist who has gone to the ice caps or a scientist who has gone to the ice caps or a politician who has gone to the ice caps.  It comes from a guy who has read about the ice caps on the internet.  It’s as if the 21st century protagonist has Googled his duel and learned the outcome, but must nevertheless continue on his way, unsure when he’ll meet the opponent. 

Or if he’ll meet him at all.  It takes a minimum of 40 years for some burned fuels to affect the climate, Harbach informs us.  In a sense, we’re living our grandfather’s dreams, and dreaming our granddaughter’s days. Where we, in the present, fit in is murky.  How can emergency rhetoric operate in a discussion that holds its outcomes so far in the future, and its causes so far in the past?  Harbach acknowledges that the “long lag is the feature that makes global warming so dangerous,” but his own warning is urgent, finite, and is positioned by his editors as a brief perforation with no past or future.  The essay’s marked as “An Interruption” in the regular “Intellectual Situation,” signaling both that the content is important enough to warrant the reader’s immediate attention, and that that very attention is transient. In Issue 5, the editors imply, “The Intellectual Situation” will return to its usual treatment of “problems of everyday life.”  What Harbach wants, however, is for Global Warming to be the every day problem.  But what language can convey that, when the warning is always about tomorrow?

Global warming certainly isn’t a practical concern for most Americans.  It’s practical to be concerned about events like hurricanes and tornados and floods, but global warming – whether there will be more hurricanes in the next century than in this one –isn’t enough of a practical concern to make any difference in the voting booth.  Of course, gay marriage certainly isn’t a practical concern for most Americans either.  Most Americans aren’t gay, and I can’t think of a single American who would be practically threatened by a gay marriage.  But the language surrounding the issue – one of tangible emergency, one of assault on today’s family – makes the issue practical.  It suggests that the marriages of heterosexual partners are instantly destabilized and undermined at the moment when same sex partners marry.  Political power is gained, in that case, by constructing immediate personal threat. 

Harbach takes an opposite approach – he tries to construct threat by unleashing a torrent of imagined future problems so awful and so overwhelming that they seem present.  It’s a solid strategy because he executes it so well, but my lasting feeling was selfish – I’ll die before the shit hits the fan.  Environment related language rarely confers personal threat.  Guilt, perhaps, but almost never threat.  Environmental Protection Agency?  The environment doesn’t get scared or vote.  Natural Resources Defense Council?  Natural Resources don’t get mad or donate money.  Voters are selfish, and to issue a call to arms about global warming you’ve either got to convince them to care about the earth, care about their grandchildren, or get them nervous about themselves here and now. Bush exploited this last strategy in his State of the Union address when he warned that “America is addicted to oil,” implying a human weakness and illness that had to be cured, and fast.  Addiction is also a personal subject for the President; he is a born again Christian who kicked his booze habit and can therefore kick oil, too.  He held Americans as today’s victims, not the earth. 

Toward the end of his essay, Harbach addresses the “addiction” to oil: “This [the transition to renewable energy] is the responsibility incumbent on us, and its fulfillment could easily be couched in the familiar, voter-friendly language of American leadership, talent, and heroism.”  It’s true, it could be easily couched that way – but what seems to keep Harbach himself up at night are global warming doomsday scenarios, not American heroism. “Addicted to Oil” plays on these nightmares.  Perhaps it’s time that the NRDC and company did too.

Rx: Harvey David Preisler

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it

Omar Khayyam

Screenhunter_1_9Harvey died on May 19th 2002, at 3:20 p.m. The cause of death was chronic lymphocytic leukemia/lymphoma. Death approached Harvey twice: once at the age of 34 when he was diagnosed with his first cancer, and after years of living under the shadow of a relapse, when he was over the fear, a second and final time 4 years ago. He met both with courage and grace. In these trials, he showed how a man so enthralled by life can be at peace with death. Harvey did not seek refuge in visions of heaven or a life after death. I only saw him waver once. When in 1996, our daughter Sheherzad developed a high fever and a severe asthmatic attack at the age of two, Harvey’s anxiety was palpable. After hours of taking turns in the Emergency Room, rocking and carrying her little body connected to the nebulizer, as she finally dozed off, he asked me to step outside. In the silence of a hot, still Chicago night, he said in a tormented voice, “If something happens to her I am going to kill myself because of the very remote chance that those fundamentalists are right and there is a life after death. I don’t want the little one to be alone”.

Truth is what mattered most to Harvey. He faced it and accepted it. When I would become upset by the intensely painful nature of his illness, Harvey was always calm and matter of fact, “It’s the luck of the draw, Az. Don’t distress yourself over it for a second”. It was an acceptance of the human condition with quiet composure. “We are all tested. But it is never in the way we prefer, nor at the time we expect.” W. B. Yeats was puzzled by the question:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of work.

Fortunately for Harvey, it was never a question of either or. For him, work was life. Once, towards the end, when I asked him to work less and maybe do other things that he did not have the time for before, his response was that such an act would make a mockery of everything he had stood for and done until that point in his life. Work was his deepest passion outside of the family. Three days before he died, Harvey had a lab meeting at home with more than 20 people in attendance, and he went over each individual’s scientific project with his signature genuine interest and boyish enthusiasm. Even as he clearly saw his own end approach, Harvey was hopeful that a better future awaits other unfortunate cancer victims through rigorous research.

Harvey grew up in Brooklyn and obtained his medical degree from the University of Rochester. He trained in Medicine at New York Hospitals, Cornell Medical Center, and in Medical Oncology at the National Cancer Institute. At the time of his death, he was the Director of the Cancer Institute at Rush University in Chicago and the Principal Investigator of a ten million dollar grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study and treat acute myeloid leukemias (AML), in addition to several other large grants which funded his research laboratory with approximately 25 scientists entirely devoted to basic and molecular research. He published extensively including more than 350 full-length papers in peer reviewed journals, 50 books and/or book chapters and approximately 400 abstracts.

Harvey loved football with a passion that was only matched by mine for poetry. He was exceedingly anti-social and worked actively to avoid company while I had a considerable social circle and was almost always surrounded by friends and extended family. If you saw the two of us going out to dinner, you would have been confused; I looked dressed for a dinner at the White House while Harvey could have been taking the trash out. We met in March 1977 and did not match in age (I was 24, he was 36), status (I was single and a fresh medical graduate waiting to start my Residency, he was married with three children and the Head of the Leukemia Service), or religion (I was a Shia Muslim, he came from an Orthodox Jewish family, and his grandfather was a Rabbi). Yet, we shared a core set of values that made us better friends than we had ever been with another soul.

Harvey liked to tell a story about his first scientific experiment. He was four years old, living in Brooklyn, and went to his backyard to urinate. To his surprise, a worm emerged from the little puddle. He promptly concluded that worms came from urine. In order to prove his hypothesis, he went back the next day and repeated the experiment. To his satisfaction, another worm appeared from the puddle just as before, providing reproducible proof that worms came from urine, a belief he steadfastly hung on to until he was nine years old. An interesting corollary is the explanation for this phenomenon provided by his then six year old daughter Sheherzad some years ago. As he gleefully recounted his experiment, she pointed out matter-of-factly, “Of course, Daddy, if there were worms living in your favorite peeing spot, they would have to float up because of the water you were throwing on them!

Harvey was an exceptionally gifted child whose IQ could not be measured by the standardized tests that were given to the Midwood High students in Brooklyn. He was experimenting with little chemistry sets, and making home-made rockets at 6 years of age, and had read so much in Biology and Physics that he was excused from attending these classes throughout high school. He decided to study cancer at 15 years of age as a result of an early hypothesis he developed concerning the etiology of cancer, and he never wavered from this goal until he died. Harvey worked with some of the best minds in his field, his mentors included Phil Leder, Paul Marks, Charlotte Friend, Sol Spiegleman and James Holland. Harvey started his career in cancer by conducting pure molecular and cellular research, for a time concentrating on leukemias in rats and mice, but decided that it was more important to study freshly obtained human tumor cells and conduct clinical research since man must remain the measure of all things. Accordingly, he served his patients with extraordinary dedication, consideration, respect and manifested a deep understanding for the unspeakable tragedies they and their families face once a diagnosis of cancer is given to them. Harvey exercised supreme wisdom in dealing with cancer patients as well as in trying to understand the nature of the malignant process. He not only succeeded in providing better treatment options to patients, he also devoted a lifetime to nourishing and training young and hopeful researchers, providing them with inspiration, selfless guidance and protection so they could achieve their potential in the competitive and combative academic world. As a result, he was emulated and cherished enormously as a leader, original thinker, and beloved mentor by countless young scientists and physicians. In acknowledgment of his tireless efforts to inspire and challenge young students, especially those belonging to minority communities, or coming from impoverished backgrounds, Harvey was given the Martin Luther King Junior Humanitarian Award by the Science and Math Excellence Network of Chicago in 2002. Unfortunately, he was too sick to receive it in person, nonetheless, he was greatly moved by this honor.

Harvey traveled extensively to see the works of great masters first hand. He returned to Florence, Milan and Rome on an annual basis for years to see some of his favorites; the statue of Moses; the Unfinished Statues by Michelangelo; the Sistine chapel. He would travel to Amsterdam to visit the Van Gogh Museum, and to Paris so he could show little Sheherzad his beloved Picassos. His three greatest heroes were Moses, Einstein and Freud, and his study in every home we shared (Buffalo, Cincinnati and Chicago) had beautiful framed pictures of all three. Harvey had a curious mind, and read constantly. His areas of interest ranged from Kafka and Borges to physics, astronomy, psychology, anthropology, history, evolutionary biology, complexity, fuzzy logic, chaos, paleoanthroplogy, the American Civil War, theology, politics, biographies, social sciences, to science fiction. His books number in thousands. The breadth of his encyclopedic knowledge in so many areas, combined with his ability to use it in a manner appropriate for the time or to the occasion often astonished and delighted those who had serious discussions with him.

From Mark (Harvey’s son from his first marriage):

Our Dad was not a sentimental man. He was the ever scientist. Emotions clouded reason…and if you cannot see reason you may as well be blind. But Dad did have a side few were lucky enough to see. While he was always practical… He truly was an emotional man. He stood up for his beliefs and he never backed down. One of those beliefs was that it was important to die with dignity. No complaints, despite all the pain. He didn’t want to be a burden to his children or his wife. He never was. Azra said it best: Taking care of him was an honor, never a burden. There’s a Marcus Aurelius quote he often spoke of: “ Death stared me in the face and I stared right back.” Dad, you certainly did.

More than anything our Father was a family man. He cherished us and we cherished him. He often thanked us for all the days and nights spent by his side, but I told him there was no need for thanks. None of us could have been anywhere else. He and I often discussed his illness. He once asked me why he should keep fighting…what good was there in it? I told him his illness had brought our family much closer together. He smiled and said he was glad something good came of it.

Azra, he adored you. He often told me it was love at first sight. You two shared a love that only exists in fairy tales. Dad could be unconscious but still manage a smile when you walked into the room. I have never seen anything like it and I feel privileged to have witnessed your devotion to each other. The way you took care of him is inspiring. You never left his side and you refused to let him give up. No one could have done anything more for him and he knew it. He was very lucky to find you.

While going through his wallet I was shocked to find a piece of paper folded up in the back. On it were two quotes written in his own pen. I’d like to share one with you. “There isn’t much more to say. I have had no joy, but a little satisfaction from this long ordeal. I have often wondered why I kept going. That, at least I have learned and I know it now at the end. There could be no hope, no reward. I always recognized that bitter truth. But I am a man and a man is responsible for himself.” (The words of George Gaylord Simpson). Our Father died Sunday, May 19th at 3:20 in the afternoon. His family lives on with a love and closeness that will make him proud. Pop, we love you. You were our best friend. We will miss you everyday.

And thus Harvey lived, and thus he died. Proud to the end.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe.

–John Donne

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Forgive me, my sons, for I have sinned

From The Guardian:

Philiproth1_2 For a decade now, we have lived with the glory of late Philip Roth. To punctuate his last four indelible novels of America and its discontents at the turn of the century, Roth has developed a periodic habit of making a sharp inward turn, an unblinking memento mori, as if to stir in himself the urgency for another major assault on his times.

The inward gesture was set in motion by the priapic Sabbath’s Theater, the book in which he asked himself, in part, whether he had still the potency for creation in the face of creeping mortality. He further interrogated that question in The Dying Animal and he gets even closer to the bones of it in this short, somewhat terrifying book. Everyman takes its title and its theme from the medieval play in which an unprepared sinner is informed by Death of his imminent judgment day. Everyman, in that 15th-century incarnation, is deserted as he faces his maker by first his friends and his family and then his wealth; these impostors are followed by his strength, beauty and knowledge. All that is finally stacked in his favour in the divine audit are his good deeds. It is not a cheerful tale.

Roth’s Everyman, who is godless and nameless, is already dead and nearly buried when we meet him.

More here.


Miniaturized satellites, in Nature:06042412

A miniature satellite has arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), where it will take its first space flight in indoor comfort rather than in the harsh conditions outside the station.

Its inventors hope that the volleyball-sized probe will be the forerunner to a new generation of small satellites that can fly in formation, and possibly act as servicing robots for the ISS.

The probe arriving at the ISS this week is one of just three built by the SPHERES project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. The Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellite is designed to float in space while holding a precise position.

A flotilla of such satellites could eventually act as parts of a giant telescope, maintaining their position by communicating with each other using radio links, suggests David Miller, who leads the MIT team.

Makiya’s Shia Culpa

After peddling the idea that democracy in Iraq was easy as pie, Kanan Makiya decides to blame the facts, in NPQ.

The Shiite leadership have acted irresponsibly by not rising above their own sense of victimhood. This failure of imagination means they will lose more than anyone else in Iraq because they will be unable to reap the rewards of their own democratic majority status. Instead of consolidating their position, they risk provoking civil war. Iraq is on the precipice.

Though there are problems with the constitution over which one can quibble, the real issue is not the wording of the document itself or its decentralized, federal vision. It is a set of guidelines that in any case will be further interpreted down the road.

The destabilizing element is that there is no resolution over how powers are delegated or who, clearly, is accountable to whom. The Shiite leaders have not thought about the country as a whole. In the exile opposition, we have been thinking about federalism for 15 years, and even then we did not get very far in defining it. However, it is a new idea to the overwhelming majority of Iraqis who were not part of that exiled opposition; those inside the country barely grasp the concept. The relations of the regions to the center have not been thought through. The obvious implication that people filled with foreboding about the future will draw from such a document is that whoever has the most power—the Shiite majority—will implement the rules as they see fit.

Discussion on Islam, Democracy and War

Also in NPQ, Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ramadan, Imran Khan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Reza Aslan, all on Islam, reform and democracy, war and terrorism. Reza Aslan on the democratic promise held out by Iraqi’s constitution.

The truth is that despite grumblings from those who were expecting a secular, liberal democracy to arise fully formed in the midst of a bloody and chaotic occupation, the constitution of Iraq is nothing short of a miracle. This is an enlightened charter of laws written in a lawless country embroiled in a civil war, whose framers were literally dragged onto the streets and beaten to death between meetings. And yet, in spite of the odds, Iraq’s leaders have drafted a constitution that reflects the values, interests and concerns of an overwhelming majority of a fractious population in a fabricated country that has never known anything resembling genuine democracy.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Iraq’s constitution is the way it has managed to balance the religious identity of the people (96 percent of whom are Muslim) with the requirements of democratic pluralism. Article Two of the constitution establishes Islam as “the official religion of the state” and “a basic source of legislation,” meaning that no law can be passed that contradicts “the fixed principles of Islam.” However, not only does the constitution deliberately leave those fixed principles to be defined by the natural democratic process in accordance with the changing values and sentiments of the Iraqi people, it unequivocally states that no law can be passed that contradicts the basic rights and freedoms outlined by the constitution. Among the first of these is that all individuals have a right to complete freedom of creed, worship, practice, thought and conscience. True, a constitution does not a democracy make. Still, as the template for a stable, viable, pluralistic and distinctly Islamic democracy, Iraq could not have hoped for a better founding charter.

Schelling on Iran and Proliferation

In New Perspectives Quarterly, Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling on nuking Iran and what to do about proliferation.

The US government ought to recognize the taboo is in its favor and not try to develop a new generation of weapons with the aim of making them somehow useful on the battlefield. I’m afraid a lot of people in the Pentagon think, “We are so rich in nuclear weapons, it is a shame not to use them.” They should learn we are so rich in people and infrastructure that we will risk losing that if we encourage others, by our own example, to look positively on the use of nuclear weapons.

That is why, among other things, it is important to get the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—not because testing is important, but because that treaty is a pillar of the taboo, another nail in the coffin of the idea of weapons use. The US, above all, should never say nuclear weapons should be used preemptively…

I don’t know if there is any way to stop the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. If they do, we should try to persuade them to declare—as the Indians and Pakistanis have done—that they are for deterrence and defense, not for offensive use.

Further, we should assist the Iranians in making sure custody of their weapons is secure in any time of disruption. In the case of a riot in the streets, will the weapons be safe? Who might grab them in case of civil war?

How should your babies grow?

From Nature:Babies

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued new guidelines showing how babies should ideally grow. Controversially, the new charts mean that more children in Western countries could be labelled as overweight. Doctors and parents already use charts to gauge if kids are gaining height and weight healthily. But they have flaws; they were drawn up in the 1970s and based on surveys of American children, when most babies were fed formula rather than the breast milk recommended today.

The WHO’s new Child Growth Standards are designed to show how children from birth to age 5 should grow when given a model healthy start in life. Researchers selected 8,440 children from Brazil, Ghana, India, Norway, Oman and the United States who were breast-fed, received good medical care and had mothers who did not smoke. They collected information on their height, weight and other growth milestones over 5 years.

More here.

raymond tallis


If there were a statue of the Unknown Polymath it should look like Raymond Tallis: rangy, bearded, wide-eyed with disciplined wonder. For 30 years he has been rising at five in the morning to write for two hours before going off to work as a doctor. He has been a GP, a research scientist, and a professor of gerontology, one of Britain’s leading experts, who has published more than 70 scientific papers and co-edited a 1,500-page standard textbook of gerontological medicine. But in the solitary hours of the early morning he has also been a distinguished literary critic, poet and philosopher who has written a radio play about the death of Wittgenstein. On June 2 he is talking at the Hay festival about human exceptionalism.

more from The Guardian Books here.